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Being a scientist in the post-COVID world: In conversation with LS Shashidhara

Smita Jain & Shreya Ghosh

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought science and scientists to the forefront of public scrutiny. At the same time, it has forced many scientists to take a step back and introspect as lockdown procedures are implemented throughout the country.

We spoke to LS Shashidhara, Professor, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune (Currently, on Lien at Ashoka University), about the impact the current situation has had on the way scientific research is conducted in our country, and the lessons scientists can take away from it for the future.

Featured Shashidhara Interview

In your opinion, what are the ways in which researchers can come together to create a tangible impact on the present COVID-19 pandemic situation?

COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV‑2, a novel coronavirus. This virus was not known to humankind until just a few months ago. This means that scientists need to discover almost everything about it, although clues may also be obtained from earlier studies on other coronaviruses. Scientists need to understand how SARS-CoV‑2 causes the disease, how it spreads, and how to develop drugs and vaccines against it. Considering how fast the virus is spreading and mutating as it propagates through human populations, it is important that scientists from all over the world join hands, freely share data, and work as one team. Sharing variations in clinical manifestation of the diseases, sequencing as many viral genomes as possible and sharing the same openly, and sharing successes and failures of drug and vaccine development are some of the ways by which we can reduce the timeline of developing preventive and treatment strategies. 

What is your advice for researchers who are worried about the disruption in the progress of their research programs due to the pandemic?

It is inevitable that there would be some disruption in research work, especially for experimental scientists. But we have to convert this into an opportunity. We should think differently and innovatively about what we can do during this time to be more productive and contribute to society. We should not go back to the same path of slow and incremental research. Think of newer ideas and newer ways of doing science and find ways to participate in national and international collaborations and mission-mode projects. 

What are some good ways for scientists to utilize their time during the lockdown period? 

While the labs are closed, scientists can invest their time in theoretical constructions, hypothesis building, eliminating multiple possibilities by methods of exclusion etc. When the laboratories are reopened, we would be in a better position to fast track our research and do a better job. Thankfully, compared to other periods in history when there have been such crises, we are in a digital world today. We are still connected to the community and we still have access to a lot of the earlier work done in our fields of research. We can take advantage of this. 

Do you believe that scientists should contribute to outreach efforts during this period?

Of course. The virus is invisible and the majority of the infected individuals are asymptomatic. Therapeutic drugs or vaccines are not yet available. Hence, it is important for scientists to educate the public on the importance of physical distancing. Because of the present ease and speed of spreading one’s opinion, we are inundated with false information and hoaxes. Scientists have the responsibility to prevent this. 

Do you have any other suggestions for the scientific community for dealing with the present situation?

There is a bright side in this crisis for science — the importance of science in the society can be felt more now than any other time in human history. We should work towards retaining this trust by generating high-quality data and continuously connecting to the general public through science outreach. 

How, in your opinion, will this pandemic change the course of scientific research, in India as well as abroad?

Humanity has seen worse crises than this pandemic. Science has progressed through such times. For example, there were landmark discoveries in science during 1915 – 25, a decade marked by World war I and the Spanish flu. I do not foresee any major change and have the confidence that science will shine through this pandemic and flourish. However, we should change the way we do science and try to improve the quality of our science. We should try to make more impact through both knowledge production and its utilization to mitigate climate change, preserve biodiversity, expand forest cover, and prevent future pandemics. 

Will this pandemic affect the way in which science is taught in India?

Perhaps yes. More and more people are getting used to online teaching and using technology in education. This trend has penetrated to all parts of the country and all languages. Policymakers and teachers are also rethinking the curriculum and syllabus. Hopefully, we will progressively focus more on improving self-learning ability among students, thereby reducing the dependence on syllabi and examinations. 

Do you believe this pandemic will have an effect on the public view of science and scientists? 

Science is being looked upon as a saviour during this crisis, starting from the strategy of physical distancing to slow down the infection and moving towards the development of drugs and vaccines. In spite of many false claims and hoaxes, people seem to have positive opinions about science and scientists. 

In your opinion, would this pandemic have an impact on the number and nature of collaborative projects in India? 

Yes, they may increase. Also, research may become truly interdisciplinary. For example, to address the current pandemic, we need biologists to understand the virus and develop diagnostic kits, drugs, and vaccines. We need data scientists to develop mathematical and computational models of how the virus spreads. We also need engineers and scientists to develop disinfectants, ventilators, PPEs etc. We need clinical researchers to understand how the disease progresses and what causes mortality. Such interdisciplinary projects may become a norm in the times to come. 

What do you feel are some key lessons that scientists can take away from the present situation and apply in their future research careers?

Irrespective of how much pressure one may face, the rigour of scientific methods must not be diluted. Nor can we let the need for peer-review be discounted. This would only worsen the situation and damage the reputation of scientists and their science.